2020-05-27

Ascension of Isaiah: Questions

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by Neil Godfrey

Some Jesus mythicists, following Earl Doherty and Richard Carrier, have taken a special interest in the Ascension of Isaiah [Asc. Isa.], an early Christian text that has been used to support (not establish, as some critics have asserted) the argument that Jesus was in an early stage of tradition believed to have been crucified by demons in the firmament above the earth. Fundamental to this interpretation of the Asc. Isa. is the view proposed by some mainstream scholars that a passage describing Jesus being born on earth and finally crucified on earth in the text is a late insertion. Manuscript and some textual evidence are cited in support of this view. That passage is 11:2-22. It speaks of the virgin Mary, her husband Joseph, a mysterious birth of Jesus and Jesus suckling at Mary’s breast, a later time when Jesus performs miracles and so arouses the envy of ruling demons, and of those demons stirring up hatred against him to the point where people crucify him on a tree in Jerusalem. All the while Jesus’ true identity as the “Beloved” from God in the seventh heaven is hidden from the spirit and human realms.

I have long agreed with those who have shown why we should think that that passage, sometimes called “the pocket gospel”, was not an original part of the Asc. Isa.. A number of manuscripts of the text do not have it. Has not the tendency of mythical development been to elaborate rather than excise earlier traditions? If so, surely the simplest explanation is that the passage was a later addition to the story.

This is a difficult document to analyze in any exact fashion, since the several surviving manuscripts differ considerably in wording, phrases and even whole sections. It has been subjected to much editing in a complicated and uncertain pattern of revision. Many of its elements are quite revealing, not the least for the picture they disclose of the evolution of thought about the descending Son and his role. That picture indicates that in its earlier strata, the Vision speaks of a divine Son who operates entirely in the supernatural realm. (Doherty, JNGNM, 119)

I have come to have doubts, however. I have long been in two minds over various hypotheses that Jesus was crucified by demons in the firmament (Couchoud, Doherty, Carrier). There are several reasons to think that the earliest Jesus myth is the most obvious orthodox one: that Jesus came from heaven, was crucified on earth, descended beneath the earth, then ascended back to heaven. I can address the reasons later.

In this post I want to begin tackling some of the trickier questions surrounding the Ascension of Isaiah. The person I have to thank for this review of my thinking is James Barlow who, I understand, has Masters and Doctoral degrees in Divinity and until his retirement belonged to the Anglican clergy. I have been perusing on and off for over a year a detailed commentary he prepared on the Vision chapters (6 to 11) of the Asc. Isa.

JB presents a very detailed case for the Asc. Isa. being behind some of Paul’s statements in 1 Corinthians and for the pocket gospel being an interpolation into the original Asc. Isa..

1 Cor. 2:6-9

We do, however, speak a message of wisdom among the mature, but not the wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing. 7 No, we declare God’s wisdom, a mystery that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began. 8 None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. 9 However, as it is written:

“What no eye has seen,
what no ear has heard,
and what no human mind has conceived”—
the things God has prepared for those who love him—

1 Cor. 15:3-4

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures,that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.

“As it is written” and “according to the Scriptures” should not be casually assumed to refer to the “Old Testament”. A very reasonable case can be made that Paul has less orthodox writings (viz the Asc. Isa.) in mind. I won’t take up that question now, either.

But because I know the Asc. Isa. has a particular interest for many readers of Vridar, I want to begin here to think through some of the reasons for concluding that the “pocket gospel” of 11:2-22 was not part of the original Ascension of Isaiah. I have begun to suspect it might be original after all. Continue reading “Ascension of Isaiah: Questions”


2020-05-23

Gospels Cut from Jewish Scriptures, #3

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by Neil Godfrey

Here we look at

a. the visions and rejoicing surrounding the birth of Jesus

b. the shepherds, the magi

c. massacre of the innocents

d. flight to and return from Egypt

e. Jesus twelve years of age in the temple

Future posts will continue this series.

The table is primarily a translation and slight modification of pages 183-226 of Nanine Charbonnel’s Jésus-Christ, sublime figure de paper. All posts archived here.

Continue reading “Gospels Cut from Jewish Scriptures, #3”


2020-05-21

Nazareth

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by Neil Godfrey

I’ve updated our archives to include an annotated page of links to all Vridar posts on the Nazareth question. Most are about the archaeology of the early first century period, but some address other questions such as the historical likelihood of Jesus being identified as “from Nazareth” and the supposed embarrassment behind the authors of the gospels of Matthew and Luke creating different narratives to explain how Nazareth entered the life of Jesus.

Check the right-hand column here and look under ARCHIVES by TOPIC. Look fo Nazareth under that heading.


2020-05-20

“Rulers of this Age” as part of an Interpolation into 1 Corinthians

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by Neil Godfrey

This post questions the authenticity of the section in Paul’s writings where we read that “rulers of this age” crucified “the Lord of glory” followed by a passage said to be a citation of Scripture but that appears only elsewhere in the Ascension of Isaiah. The arguments for interpolation are derived from William O. Walker Jr’s chapter 6 of Interpolations in the Pauline Letters.

On the question of the identity of the “rulers of this age” — whether human, demonic, or both — see the posts addressing a range of scholarly interpretations in the archive for Rulers of this Age.

6 We speak wisdom among those who are perfect, although it is not a wisdom belonging to this world, nor to the governing powers [rulers] of this world [age], which are being brought to nothing,

7 but we speak God’s wisdom in a mystery, the hidden wisdom which God purposed before the worlds (or: ages), with a view to our glory.

8 This wisdom none of the governing powers [rulers] of this world (-age) has known. For if they had recognized it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.

9 But as it is written, “Things that no eye has seen and no ear has heard and that never entered into any man’s heart, all the things that God has prepared for those who love him.”

10 For to us God has revealed them through the Spirit. For the Spirit explores all things, including even the depths of God.

11 For who among men knows what a man is but the man’s own spirit within him? In the same way no one has recognized what God is but the Spirit of God.

12 We, however, have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit that comes from God, so that we may know what has been bestowed upon us by God.

13 And it is also of this that we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom, but in words taught us by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual things in spiritual terms.

14 The unspiritual (“psychical”) man, however, does not receive the things of God’s Spirit. For they are foolishness in his eyes and he cannot recognize them, because they are (or: must be) spiritually interpreted.

15 The spiritual man, however, judges all things, but is not himself subject to anyone’s judgment.

16 For “who has discerned the mind of the Lord, so as to instruct him?” We, however, have the Spirit of Christ.

(Based on Conzelmann’s translation)

William O. Walker, Jr. (Westar Institute; Trinity University)

For readers impatient to get the main overview, here is a crude list of reasons some scholars have suggested the passage was not originally composed by Paul:

    1. numerous linguistic peculiarities seriously call into question Pauline authorship;
    2. the passage contradicts what Paul says elsewhere;
    3. the consistent use of ‘we’ and other features distinguish 2.6-16 form-critically from its immediate context;
    4. the presence of the passage in 1 Corinthians can plausibly be explained as an attempt by Corinthian ‘pneumatics’ to correct what they saw as Paul’s distortion of their position.

(Walker’s summary of Widman’s discussion: Widmann, Martin, “I Kor 2 6-16: Ein Einspruch gegen Paulus”, ZNW 70 (1979), pp. 44-53.)

Conzelmann writes in his commentary (p. 57),

The section 2:6-16 stands out from its context both in style and in content. It presents a self-contained idea, a commonplace of “wisdom.” It is a contradiction of his previous statements when Paul now announces after all a positive, undialectical possibility of cultivating a wisdom of the “perfect.”

Walker summarizes (p. 128) E. Earle Ellis’s view of the evidence for a non-Pauline origin:

    1. the shift from the singular … to the plural with the “we”, i.e. the pneumatics as the subject …
    2. the unity of the section independent of its context, and
    3. the considerable number of phrases not found elsewhere in the Pauline literature’.

On the basis of such evidence, Ellis concludes that “on balance, 1 Cor. 2.6-16 is probably a pre-formed piece that Paul has employed and adapted to its present context”.

Walker thus points out three possibilities:

  1. it was composed by Paul, using ideas and terminology taken from his opponents,
  2. it was composed by someone other than Paul but was included in the Corinthian letter by Paul, or
  3. it was both written and added to the Corinthian letter by someone other than Paul (not necessarily the same person, however).

Walker argues for #3. In doing so he addresses the counter-claims of Jerome Murphy-O’Connor who concludes that the passage is indeed by Paul (Interpolations in 1 Corinthians – link is to JSTOR article).

No Manuscript Evidence for Interpolation?

Some biblical scholars insist that we cannot make a serious case for interpolations unless we have anomalous manuscript evidence that physically demonstrates variations in editing lines. This is essentially an ostrich argument. The earliest manuscripts we have are those produced by the winners of the theological wars. We know editors fought their battles by modifying source texts. This state of affairs is not unique to the biblical texts since it is well-known that in other ancient literature interpolations were very common, and a problem that even ancient custodians (as in the Alexandrian Library) confronted. (See the Interpolations posts for additional discussion.)

Contextual Evidence for Interpretation

There is an abrupt shift at verse 6 Continue reading ““Rulers of this Age” as part of an Interpolation into 1 Corinthians”


2020-05-16

Gospels Cut From Jewish Scriptures, #2

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by Neil Godfrey

Here we look at

a. the announcement to the parents of John the Baptist;

b. the heralding role of John the Baptist.

Future posts will continue this series.

Continue reading “Gospels Cut From Jewish Scriptures, #2”


2020-05-12

Gospels Cut From Jewish Scriptures, #1

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by Neil Godfrey

* The table is primarily a translation and slight modification of pages 183-226 of Nanine Charbonnel’s Jésus-Christ, sublime figure de paper. All posts archived here.

From time to time I will post a section of a multi-page table* suggesting “intertextual” (or “midrashic”) links between the canonical gospel narratives and the “Old Testament” or Jewish Scriptures. I use “suggesting” because the links have come from a variety of sources and not presented as certainties. Readers will no doubt be able to suggest others and may find some room to raise questions about what is listed here.

Future posts will continue this series. Here we look at

a. The Genealogies of Jesus, and

b. Luke’s scene of the Annunciation to Mary

Tables for the birth of John the Baptist and Matthew’s nativity narrative will follow. Continue reading “Gospels Cut From Jewish Scriptures, #1”


2020-05-09

How Ignatius Cut Christianity Off From its Jewish Roots

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by Neil Godfrey

(updated 2 hours after first posting)

This post is a distillation of the chapter “Why Ignatius Invented Judaism” by Daniel Boyarin in The Ways That Often Parted: Essays in Honor of Joel Marcus. It covers the same questions addressed by Roger Parvus (see sidebox) but with a different hypothesis.

Roger Parvus posted a series on Vridar arguing that the letters of Ignatius were in fact composed by a follower of a breakaway sect from Marcionism. Roger’s thesis builds upon ideas advanced by earlier scholars that the letters of Ignatius show signs of the teachings of someone closely related to Marcionism, such as Apelles, a former disciple of Marcion. Roger also revisits and develops an idea that first appeared a century ago in scholarly publications that the author of the original letters was in fact that colorful character Peregrinus, the subject of a satire by Lucian.

The essence of Boyarin’s view is that Ignatius

a. used the term that we translate as “Judaism” to refer to any attempt to link gospel details to the Old Testament; and that

b. the gospel of Jesus Christ stood as true without any reference to Old Testament prophecies or scriptures.

This idea throws an interesting perspective on thesis we have at times addressed on this blog that the canonical gospel characters, events and sayings were constructed out “midrashic” or intertextual interpretations of Old Testament books and that their symbolic meanings were subsequently lost by those Christians who became the foundation of the Church we know today. Can the epistles of Ignatius be viewed as an early stage of that misunderstanding and loss of the original meaning of our gospels? (These, of course, are my questions, not those directly raised by Boyarin.)

Boyarin begins by comparing Paul’s and Ignatius’s respective uses of the term “Judaism” (Ioudaismos). For Paul it meant performing certain practices, not an institution. Thus when Paul writes

and I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my contemporaries among my countrymen, being more extremely zealous for my ancestral traditions (Gal. 1:14 NASB)

Daniel Boyarin

he means the “practice of Jewish ways of loyalty to the traditional doings of Jews” that Josephus described as

the ancestral [traditions] of the Ioudaioi (τὰ πάτρια τῶν Ἰουδαίων – A.J. 20.41)

It does not mean an abstract category of “a religion”. It means performing practices, customs, rituals, etc. It is the counterpart of what Thucydides complained that Plataeans were doing when they were “Medizing” — that is, “forsaking their ancestral traditions” (παραβαίνοντες τὰ πάτρια, Thucydides, P.W. 3.61.2), copying the customs of the Medes. (I am only presenting the main idea: Boyarin’s justification for this interpretation is a lengthy discussion of Galatians passages than I have outlined above.)

For Paul, it was the Jewish law that stood against the gospel. For Ignatius, however, gospel stood in opposition to Jewish scriptures.

Old Fables/Myths

At one point Ignatius equates “heterodoxy and old myths” with this Judaizing of his heretics:

Be not deceived by heterodoxiai nor by old fables, which are useless. For if we continue to live until now according to Ioudaismos, we confess that we have not received grace” (Magn. 8.1).

Could such fables possibly be connected with Jewish Scriptures here? Ignatius links them with “Judaizing”. Ignatius continues from the above passage to speak positively of the prophets, but he used the fact that they were persecuted (Magn 8:2) as evidence that they were on his side (Barrett, 237). In the Pastoral epistles we likewise read of the association of Judaism with mythology — Titus 1:14; I Timothy 1:4; 4:7; II Timothy 4:4). Ignatius appears to criticize the “Judaizers” for “mythologizing” the Scriptures: i.e. either reading them literally (Barrett, 237) or midrashically (my suggestion).

Gospel versus Scriptures

The first Christian to make that declaration, as far as we know, was Marcion. (Boyarin doubts that Ignatius took the idea from Marcion but Parvus argues that that was exactly where the idea ultimately derived.) The key passage is in Ignatius’s letter to the Philadelphians: Continue reading “How Ignatius Cut Christianity Off From its Jewish Roots”


2020-05-05

The Dying Saviour: Greek or Hebrew Origin?

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by Neil Godfrey

Prof. Dr. Jan Willem van Henten

The Christian dying saviour who atones for his people was a development of Hebrew ideas but the Greek influence cannot be ignored either. In fact, the evidence suggests that the Greek idea was embraced by Hebrew authors. (This post is sharing a few pages from J. W. van Henten’s The Maccabean Martyrs As Saviours of the Jewish People: A Study of 2 and 4 Maccabees. I work with Henten’s date for the composition of 2 Maccabees as around 124 B.C.E.)

We read in 2 Maccabees 6:12-17 that the suffering of the Jewish people at the hands of Seleucid kings is a sign of God’s special love for his people. God seeks to discipline his people before their sins get too far out of hand. That’s not how he treats the gentiles. He lets their sins continue until the reach some ultimate height and presumably then they will really suffer.

12 Now I urge those who read this book not to be depressed by such calamities, but to recognize that these punishments were designed not to destroy but to discipline our people. 13 In fact, it is a sign of great kindness not to let the impious alone for long, but to punish them immediately. 14 For in the case of the other nations the Lord waits patiently to punish them until they have reached the full measure of their sins; but he does not deal in this way with us, 15 in order that he may not take vengeance on us afterward when our sins have reached their height. 16 Therefore he never withdraws his mercy from us. Although he disciplines us with calamities, he does not forsake his own people. 17 Let what we have said serve as a reminder; we must go on briefly with the story.

The martyrs who suffer do so not only for their own sins but primarily because of the sins of all their people. (The only sins mentioned are those of the Jewish traitors.) A mother and her seven sons are martyred one by one, and before the sixth son was taken to suffer a gruesome fate  we read in 2 Maccabees 7:18 his words spoken to Antiochus:

18 After him they brought forward the sixth. And when he was about to die, he said, “Do not deceive yourself in vain. For we are suffering these things on our own account, because of our sins against our own God. Therefore astounding things have happened.

The mother engaged in a philosophical discourse with her seventh son before he suffered his gruesome fate, the point being to rationalize the notion of the resurrection for readers. (Henten, p. 176)

“These things” that are suffered embrace both the suffering of the martyrs and the afflictions of the whole nation.

The seventh son expressed the same in 2 Maccabees 7:32

32 For we are suffering because of our own sins.

The same phrase “our own sins” is again found in 10:4 after the restoration of the Temple and prayers are made expressing hope never to suffer again the same way for their sins:

When they had done this, they fell prostrate and implored the Lord that they might never again fall into such misfortunes, but that, if they should ever sin, they might be disciplined by him with forbearance and not be handed over to blasphemous and barbarous nations.

The seventh son’s last words (7:37-38) were a declaration that his and his brothers’ martyrdom would bring an end to the sufferings of their people:

37 I, like my brothers, give up body and life for the laws of our ancestors, appealing to God to show mercy soon to our nation and by trials and plagues to make you confess that he alone is God, 38 and through me and my brothers to bring to an end the wrath of the Almighty that has justly fallen on our whole nation.

Henten interprets the above passages as meaning that the martyrs are suffering as a result of the sins of all the Jews:

The pattern of the narrative . . . as well as certain remarks in 5:17-20 and 6:12-17 support this interpretation (cf. 4 Macc. 4:21). The wicked deeds of some Jewish leaders have led the whole people including the martyrs into a state of sin. This explains why the youngest brother can say at 2 Macc. 7:38 that the wrath of the Lord “has justly fallen on our whole nation”. The godless actions of Simon, Jason, Menelaus, Lysimachus, Alcimus and the unfaithful soldiers of Judas are the only sins of Jews reported in 2 Maccabees. Nowhere are the sins of the martyrs themselves mentioned. The martyrs . . . die because of the sins of the people and in this way show their solidarity with the people

(Henten, 137)

The martyrs are acting on behalf of the entire people:

The references to “we”, “us” and “our” in 2 Macc. 7:16, 30, 32-33, 38 are intended to be inclusive; they point not only to the martyrs but also to the people. The youngest brother says in 7:30 to the Seleucid king that Moses has given the law of the Lord to “our ancestors”, thereby making the entire people responsible for keeping the Torah. In 2 Macc. 7:31, Antiochus is not called the adversary of the martyrs but of “the Hebrews”.

(Henten, 138)

The sufferings that the martyrs in chapter 7 speak of are the sufferings of “the entire Jewish people” as well as to the martyrs. Reconciliation will follow the short period of torment, as the last son makes clear:

33 And if our living Lord is angry for a little while, to rebuke and discipline us, he will again be reconciled with his own servants. . . . . 38 and through me and my brothers to bring to an end the wrath of the Almighty that has justly fallen on our whole nation.”

Immediately after the deaths of the seven sons and their mother the reconciliation begins. From chapter 8 the tide turns and Judas Maccabeus soundly defeats the army of Nicanor.

40 So he died in his integrity, putting his whole trust in the Lord. 41 Last of all, the mother died, after her sons. . . . 

8 Meanwhile Judas, who was also called Maccabeus, and his companions secretly entered the villages and summoned their kindred and enlisted those who had continued in the Jewish faith, and so they gathered about six thousand. They implored the Lord to look upon the people who were oppressed by all; and to have pity on the temple that had been profaned by the godless; to have mercy on the city that was being destroyed and about to be leveled to the ground; to hearken to the blood that cried out to him; to remember also the lawless destruction of the innocent babies and the blasphemies committed against his name; and to show his hatred of evil.

As soon as Maccabeus got his army organized, the Gentiles could not withstand him, for the wrath of the Lord had turned to mercy. Coming without warning, he would set fire to towns and villages. He captured strategic positions and put to flight not a few of the enemy. He found the nights most advantageous for such attacks. And talk of his valor spread everywhere.

The story flow leads the reader to understand that the martyrdoms were the turning point in God’s intervention and working through Judas Maccabeus to free the people from foreign domination.

This pattern is repeated when Razis kills himself to save his people — 2 Maccabees 14:37-46. Stabbing himself didn’t work, so he threw himself off a tower into the enemy below, but that didn’t work either, so he finally ripped out his entrails and flung them at his opponents. The following chapter sees Judas Maccabeus announcing to his troops a dream-sign from God (Jeremiah giving him a golden sword) with the only possible outcome, 15:27:

So, fighting with their hands and praying to God in their hearts, they laid low at least thirty-five thousand, and were greatly gladdened by God’s manifestation.

These stories of deaths that became turning points for the liberation of the Jews are core themes in 2 Maccabees. What was their source of inspiration?

[I]n 2 Macc. 7:37-38 classical and Hellenistic Greek vocabulary concerning the death for one’s fatherland (Hellas), home town, laws, friends, relatives or beloved131 is combined for the first time with conceptions about atonement in the Hebrew Bible . . . .

(Henten, 157)

The Greco-Roman influence

The devil is in the details of the vocabulary used. Continue reading “The Dying Saviour: Greek or Hebrew Origin?”


2020-05-02

Damnation Upon That Christ Myth Theory!

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by Neil Godfrey

Richard Carrier has posted his response to David Litwa’s chapter that professes to be addressing the Christ Myth theory:

I also posted on the same chapter by Litwa:

Carrier’s post comes with a much more lively and colourful style than mine.

 


2020-04-30

Thighs: Pythagorean, Biblical and Other

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by Neil Godfrey

This is just a curiosity post in response to someone raising a query about the golden thigh of Pythagoras and wondering if there is any connection with the use of the word thigh as a euphemism for genitalia in the Bible.

To begin, here are the sources for the idea that Pythagoras had a “golden thigh”. It is difficult to interpret the word as anything other than a literal thigh. But we will see there is more to Greek mythical associations with the thigh in the next section.

Pythagoras modestly covering his golden thigh

They come from “the fragments” of what ancients recorded of their knowledge of what Aristotle wrote. They are all collated in a volume available at archive.org — pages 134 and 135.

APOLLON. Mirab. 6. These were succeeded by Pythagoras son of Mnesarchus, who first worked at mathematics and arithmetic, but later even indulged in miracle-mongering like that of Pherecydes. When a ship was coming into harbour at Metapontum laden with a cargo, and the bystanders were, on account of the cargo, praying for her safe arrival, Pythagoras intervened and said: ‘Very well, you will see the ship bearing a dead body.’ Again in Caulonia, according to Aristotle, he prophesied the advent of a she-bear; and Aristotle also, in addition to much other information about him, says that in Tuscany he killed a deadly biting serpent by biting it himself. He also says that Pythagoras foretold to the Pythagoreans the coming political strife; by reason of which he departed to Metapontum unobserved by anyone, and while he was crossing the river Cosas he, with others, heard the river say, with a voice beyond human strength, ‘Pythagoras, hail!’; at which those present were greatly alarmed. He once appeared both at Croton and at Metapontum on the same day and at the same hour. Once, while sitting in the theatre, he rose (according to Aristotle) and showed to those sitting there that one of his thighs was of gold. There are other surprising things told about him, but, not wishing to play the part of mere transcribers, we will bring our account of him to an end.

Further from the same source . . . .

AELIAN, V.H. 2. 26. Aristotle says that Pythagoras was called by the people of Croton the Hyperborean Apollo. The son of Nicomachus adds that Pythagoras was once seen by many people, on the same day and at the same hour, both at Metapontum and at Croton; and at Olympia, during the games, he got up in the theatre and showed that one of his thighs was golden. The same writer says that while crossing the Cosas he was hailed by the river, and that many people heard him so hailed.

Ibid. 4. 17. Pythagoras used to tell people that he was born of more than mortal seed; for on the same day and at the same hour he was seen (they say) at Metapontum and at Croton; and at Olympia he showed that one of his thighs was golden. He informed Myllias of Croton that he was Midas the Phrygian, the son of Gordius. He fondled the white eagle, which made no resistance. While crossing the river Cosas he was addressed by the river, which said ‘Hail, Pythagoras!’

DIOG. LAERT. 8. 1. 11 (9). He is said to have been very dignified in his bearing, and his disciples held that he was Apollo, and came from the men of the north. There is a story that once, when he was stripped, his thigh was seen to be golden; and there were many who said that the river Nessus had hailed him as he was crossing it.

IAMB. V.P. 28. 140-3. The Pythagoreans derive their confidence in their views from the fact that the first to express them was no ordinary man, but God. One of their traditions relates to the question ‘Who art thou, Pythagoras?’; they say he is the Hyperborean Apollo. This is supposed to be evidenced by two facts: when he got up during the games he showed a thigh of gold, and when he entertained Abaris the Hyperborean he stole from him the arrow by which he was guided. Abaris is said to have come from the Hyperboreans collecting money for the temple and prophesying pestilence ; he lived in the sacred shrines and was never seen to drink or eat anything . . . .

But there is more. There is something suggestive about the thigh in other myths.

Birth of Dionysus from Zeus’s thigh

One that comes to mind is the birth of the god Dionysus from the thigh of Zeus. Zeus had seduced and impregnated Semele but when Semele died before her time to give birth (Zeus’s jealous wife had tricked Zeus into causing Semele’s death by appearing before her in all his divine glory) Zeus snatched up the child and sewed him into his thigh until he was ready to be born. (Dionysus thus was known as the twice-born god.)

But why the thigh? We believe that we are dealing here with a literal translation of a West Semitic idiom which euphemistically designated begetting: “sprung from one’s thigh” (yōṣe’ yerēkó, inaccurately translated in English Bibles by “loins”) merely meant “begotten by one,” his child.

(Astour, 195. Note that the Greek myth of Dionysus was borrowed and adapted from Phygia in Asia Minor.)

In the literature of ancient Greek myths thigh wounds are often euphemisms for castration. So . . .

Classical scholars are generally aware of the trope that in literature from around the world thigh wounds are often euphemistic for castration, or at least for impotence. But classicists have not noted how thigh wounds frequently symbolize not only physical impotence but political or spiritual impotence, and how such wounds also represent a temporary or permanent loss of heroic status for the wounded individual as well as a crisis for the group of people represented by that individual. This association apparently has its roots in a belief, held by many cultures, that semen was produced in several places in the body, including in the marrow of the thigh bone, and the thighs’ proximity to the testicles resulted in a close association that was nearly an interchange between the thighs and the male genitalia. Consequently, any kind of wound to the thigh, whether a wrenching, piercing, crushing, or other injury or mutilation, could represent a blow to a man’s physical and spiritual virility. . . . .

(Felton, 47f)

Some ancient physiology and learning why ankle wounds so often proved fatal: Continue reading “Thighs: Pythagorean, Biblical and Other”


2020-04-24

Symbolic Characters #3: Mary, Personification of the Jewish People, “Re-Virgined”

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by Neil Godfrey

Continuing the series on Nanine Charbonnel’s Jésus-Christ, sublime figure de paper . . . .

–o–

After this post I will pause from addressing NC’s book for a little while because I want to get a firm grasp of the next section before posting, and I think it is a very critical section, one that addresses the formation of the figure of Jesus in the gospels.

Here we continue the theme of suggesting what collective groups different individual persons in the gospels represent. The key takeaway is that there are reasons to think that certain names stand for larger entities, e.g. John the Baptist represents the Prophets of the “Old Testament” pointing to Jesus, the twelve disciples represent the foundation of the “new Israel” or Church, and so forth. In this post we have a look at the virgin mother of Jesus.

On “Twelve disciples” as the foundation of a “new Israel”: I have tended to think that the idea of the Twelve Disciples as a foundation of the Church was a second-century attempt to rebut Marcionism (i.e., the belief that Paul alone was the one true apostolic founder of the church). If so, the Gospel of Mark which arguably depicts Peter and the Twelve as failures (see Ted Weeden), was in some sympathy with Marcionism, but the later gospels with their positive spin on the Twelve stand in opposition to Marcionism; if so, they would have been authored closer to the mid-second century. Perhaps even the Gospel of Mark was written as an attempt to denounce attempts to establish a certain “orthodoxy” on the myth of The Twelve as opposed to Paul.

–o–

Other Vridar posts on the Cana miracle are by Tim Widowfield:

Mary and the Cana Wedding

Again we notice evidence of symbolism in a gospel story. We have a wedding narrative consisting of inversions of passages in the Jewish Scriptures. Other figurative language in the gospels leads us to see this wedding as a representation of an end-time event, a successful marriage to supplant the failed marriage of “old Israel” with Yahweh.

The following table blends parts of what I read in both Charbonnel and Mergui‘s books:

Jn 2:1  On the third day, Hosea 6:2 “After two days he will revive us; on the third day he will restore us, that we may live in his presence. (i.e. a New Creation)
 a wedding took place at Cana in Galilee The Wedding = the covenant of Yahweh with his people Israel;

Galilee = the land of gentiles. (Isaiah 9:1)

Cana = from late Hebrew qanah meaning to acquire, to gain, to possess (c.f. Cain)

The scene represents the end time wedding of the enlarged Israel that includes gentiles.

 Jesus’ mother was there The mother is also the people, the bride (Isaiah 22)
2:2  and Jesus [= YHWH who Saves] and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. The messiah is the husband of his people (Jer. 31:3)
2:3  the wine was gone,

“They have no more wine.”

The wine is the Word or Law of Yahweh (Prov. 9:5; compare Ps. 73:10 where “waters” = word of Yahweh).

The old wine thus suggests the first (Mosaic) Law.

The words of the mother of Jesus, or the old Israel, contains a recollection of the rebellion of Israel with its complaining to God of what they lacked, or rebellion against the law. This may explain Jesus’ distant response.

2:4  “Woman” = Eve (Genesis 2:23)
2:5  His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” = the text of Genesis 41:55 — “Go to Joseph and do what he tells you.” (Jesus is the new Joseph who has come to feed his people.)

Obedience leads to a new wine, one that is much better — the new Law that replaces the old.

2:6  Nearby stood six stone water jars Six is the number of incompleteness: we are on the cusp of the last days.

The purification jars are filled with water (for purification of the Jews) but wine replaces mere water of purification

2:8  Then he told them, “Now draw some out” The messiah brings new wine: Joel 3:18; Isaiah 25:6; Hosea 14:7

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Virgin Mothers of Moses and Jesus

Jochebad was said to be 130 years old when she gave birth to Moses. (Pedro Américo: Misés e Jocabed, Wikimedia Commons)

Keep in mind that NC is not merely saying that gospel characters are symbolic. The point is much richer than that. The figures and actions are constructed in dialogue with (and with the use of) extracts from the Hebrew Bible. This is their midrashic nature.

NC shares an idea from  Armand Abécassis (who has set out his own case for the Gospels of Luke and Matthew being a form of Jewish midrash on the Old Testament) in which the gospels have engaged with a rabbinical view of their time that Moses was born of a virgin. Again, we find the clues in the later writings of the Talmud and suspect the claim that they represented very early traditions may have some factual basis.

Exodus 2:1-2 (NKJV)

And a man of the house of Levi went and took as wife a daughter of Levi. So the woman conceived and bore a son. And when she saw that he was a beautiful child, she hid him three months.

In the Babylonian Talmud’s Sotah 12a we read that Amram and Jochebad, the parents-to-be of Moses, divorced when learning of Pharaoh’s decree that all male children of Hebrew marriages would be killed. Their daughter Miriam, however, advised Amram that he had been wrong to put her away and to take her back and remarry her.

At this time Jochebad was 130 years old. In several ways Jochebad was seen to represent the entire body of Israel. Though conceived outside Egypt she was born to Levi in Egypt, so her life had spanned the entire time of Israel in Egypt, and her actions were reported to and followed by all of Israel. Just as Egypt, a representative of the pagan nations, carried within its own womb the hope of her salvation, that is Israel, so Jochebad, bore in her womb the future liberator of Israel. The fact that she was taken back by her husband who had decided not to have any more relations with her is interpreted by the Jewish tradition as the symbolization of the renewal of the community.

Now when Jochebad was restored to Amram God performed a remarkable miracle. He changed her back to a young maiden, a virgin even. Continue reading “Symbolic Characters #3: Mary, Personification of the Jewish People, “Re-Virgined””


2020-04-20

The Symbolic Characters in the Gospels #2: John the Baptist and the Twelve Disciples

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by Neil Godfrey

Continuing the series on Nanine Charbonnel’s Jésus-Christ, sublime figure de paper . . . .

–o–

John the Baptist

Maybe I’m just naturally resistant to new ideas but I found myself having some difficulty with Nanine Charbonnel’s [NC] opening stage of her discussion about John the Baptist. (Recall we have been looking at plausibility of gospel figures being personifications of certain groups, with Jesus himself symbolizing a new Israel.) NC begins with an extract from Maximus of Turin’s interpretation: by cross-referencing to Paul’s statements that the “head of a man is Christ” (1 Cor. 11:3) Maximus concluded that the decapitation of John the Baptist represented Christ being cut off from the adherents to the Law, the Jews. Without the head they were a lifeless corpse.

Further, if we accept the passage about Jesus in Josephus’s Antiquities as genuine, NC suggests that it is not impossible that Josephus was writing of what he had heard indirectly from messianic Jews in Rome who had spoken of a figurative or literary figure that was confused at some point with a historical one.

We may not like that interpretation but at least Maximus recognized something symbolic about John the Baptist. As NC reminds us, he was the one who greets the messiah from his mother’s womb (Luke 1:41), the one who asks questions designed to recognize Jesus, the one who acts out Elijah’s confrontation with the lawless Jezebel and king Ahab. Even if we accept the entry about John the Baptist in Josephus as genuine and acknowledge that there was a historical “John the Baptist”, this person is depicted in symbolic roles in the gospels.

John the Baptist by Titian. Wikimedia Commons

NC has more to say but permit me to give my own view, or perhaps a mix of my own with NC’s. John the Baptist is presented initially in the physical image of the arch-prophet, Elijah, and is calling upon all Israel to repent and prepare for the messiah. They all come out into the wilderness to do so. In Luke’s gospel when different groups (soldiers, tax collectors and others) ask John what they should do John replies with the fundamental spiritual intent of the law in each case: be merciful. Surely this is all symbolic of the Law and Prophets being the articles of the covenant made between Israel and God in the wilderness, and just as the early Christians found Jesus predicted in the prophets so John, the final prophet, points them to Jesus the messiah. Later we find the same prophet asking Jesus if he is the one, with Jesus replying with signs as recorded in the Prophets to assure him. John, meanwhile (as NC herself notes as significant), is martyred just as many other prophets before him, and just as Jesus himself will be. The tale is surely told as symbolism and the character John as a literary personification. Jesus emerges from the Prophets. It is the Prophets who all point towards Jesus Christ.

So when John says he is not worthy to baptize Jesus, he is saying that Jesus is greater than the Law and Prophets. Jesus, however, replies that he has come to submit to the Law and Prophets. His baptism represents the emerging in his full spiritual reality the new Israel, the one prophesied in the prophets. This is not the baptism described in Josephus. It is a baptism of repentance, of preparation for the Christ.

The absence of biographical or other historical information is telling. We only have details that call out for symbolic interpretation. The reason each evangelist can modify the narrative is not because they were working with historical data but entirely in their own imaginative interpretation of the way the Prophets pointed readers to Christ.

“John” and Peter race to the tomb

I say “John” for convenience and according to tradition. The Gospel of John notably does not name the disciple, appearing to identify him with the “beloved” disciple

The famous Gregory who became the Pope in the sixth/seventh century identified a possible symbolic meaning of the Gospel of John’s account of John and Peter running to the empty tomb.  Quoted by NC, Gregory sought a meaning in John arriving first at the tomb but not entering, with Peter coming later yet being the first to enter. John was interpreted as the Synagogue, the Jews, who had “come first” to Christ, but failed to “enter”. Peter, representing the gentiles, arrived later but was the first to believe. [See Gregory the Great Homily 22 on the Gospels; see also comments below for further discussion]

The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed . . . (John 20:4-8)

Disciples Running to the Tomb / E. Burnand. Wikimedia Commons

Interesting possibility. But if the “beloved disciple” is rather meant to be an unfalsifiable witness (and he, not Peter, is said to be the one who believed), it is hard to identify the same with the “Jews of the synagogue”. On the other hand, given what we know of Peter as the apostle to the gentiles, the one who stands between Jews and gentiles (hence his “double-minded” reputation?) something along the lines of Gregory’s interpretation does have some appeal.

Other points to consider, as per NC: John (meaning God is gracious) does have a sound similarity to Jonah, another representative of Jews in the old story. (Then we also have Peter being identified in the Gospels of Matthew and John with the son of Jonah.) NC promises to return to Peter in the last chapter. I will be patient.

Again, we have details that are not typically found in biographies. Recall the same point (especially with respect to the Gospel of John) in How the Gospels Became History. Such details appear pointless in themselves; they scream out for symbolic interpretation — and many ministers and preachers have understood this point well enough to prepare many sermons drawing out various meanings for their congregations.

The Twelve Apostles: the twelve tribes of Israel

This one is easier. The twelve patriarchs in Genesis are treated as symbolic representatives of the tribes that bore their names. I think many of us have seen in the Twelve Disciples a new founding group of the “new Israel”.

NC sees three principles underlying any interpretation of the Twelve. Continue reading “The Symbolic Characters in the Gospels #2: John the Baptist and the Twelve Disciples”


2020-04-13

The Symbolic Characters in the Gospels: Personifications of Jews and Gentiles

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by Neil Godfrey

Continuing our series on Nanine Charbonnel’s Jésus-Christ, sublime figure de paper . . . .

–o–

Where did the gospel characters come from?

Nanine Charbonnel [NC] presents a case for the parabolic or symbolic character of the gospels. In the second chapter of the second part of Jésus-Christ, sublime figure de papier, we see how narrative figures who appear as historical persons are best explained as symbols of collective groups. We have seen how in the Jewish Scriptures individuals in a story represent nations: e.g. In Hosea the person Israel stands for the whole of Israel; Abraham and Sarah being expelled from Egypt prefigure the Exodus, and many other cases can be cited.) Here are NC’s thoughts on some Gospel figures.

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Zechariah and Elizabeth

This couple represents the Jews of the Temple.

Zechariah (=YHWH remembers). In the Protoevangelium of James (or Infancy Gospel of James) Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, is slain by Herod for refusing to reveal where his son John was hidden. In the Jewish Bible the same name is martyred by the king Joash. Joash had been hidden safe from the murderous Athaliah by the father of Zechariah, the priest Jehoiada, but forgot his kindness and had his son Zechariah stoned (2 Chronicles 24:17-22).

Elizabeth is said to be descended from Aaron in Luke 1:5.

In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron.

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Mary and Martha

Vincent Adriaenssen – Christ in the House of Mary and Martha (Wikimedia)

These sisters are drawn from Naomi and Ruth in the Book of Ruth. They represent the Jews and the gentile converts. The gentiles preceded the Jews.

Since the Middle Ages much there has been much discussion about how their roles act out the superiority of the contemplative over the active life. But that meaning was far from the mind their original creator, says NC.

Naomi is called Mara:

“Call me not Naomi [that is, Pleasant]. Call me Mara [that is, Bitter], for the Almighty hath dealt very bitterly with me. (Ruth 1:20)

She came from Bethlehem (Ruth 1:1-2).

The fourth evangelist changed Naomi-Mara of Bethlehem to Mary of Bethany (=house of affliction (or figs)).

Martha is Ruth of Bethlehem (Ruth 1:19-22) with the prefix mem (מ) (préfixe qui sert à faire des noms, = prefix used to make names, NC 228) added to RWTH (rūt – ר֖וּת) to make MaRWTH — which becomes Martha in Greek. So Ruth of Bethlehem becomes Martha of Bethany.

Jesus gently chides Martha for her busyness and commend Mary for having chosen the appropriate response to his presence. Martha is eclipsed by Mary just as the Mosaic covenant with its preoccupation with works of the law is eclipsed by the way of “a good heart and prayer”. This is how it was with Naomi and Ruth.

The two women divide their tasks. After years in Moab Naomi-Mara hears that there is bread to be found in Bethlehem (=house of bread) so she rises and returns. Once back home there, she sits in the house while Ruth gleans for bread. Finally, she sits Ruth down to find her a husband. The author of the Gospel of Luke has transferred these attitudes to “anyone who agrees to listen to the story of Israel”. Mary-Mara is sitting down because one day earlier she got up and one day again she will get up. Martha-Ruth is busy with food because one day (a different time) she sat down to listen to the Torah and another day she will be seated to listen to it again. Mary and Martha, like Naomi and Ruth, are living out the Feast of Weeks, Pentecost, the gift of the Torah, the permanent gift of the Word . . . .

(More paraphrase than translation of Marie Vidal, Jesus and Virounèka, 2000, p. 168, quoted in NC 228f. The link is to an Amazon page with a description of the book. Use Google Translate to convert it to English.)

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The Hemorrhaging Woman and Daughter of Jairus

Continue reading “The Symbolic Characters in the Gospels: Personifications of Jews and Gentiles”


2020-04-12

Symmetry in the Legends Surrounding Jesus’ Birth and Death

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by Tim Widowfield

[Note: I’m offering the following as a diversion to get our minds off this terrible timeline. –taw]

William Blake, (1757-1827), The Resurrection, c. 1805

A few years back, I published a post concerning the date of Jesus’ birth (Why Is Christmas on the 25th of December?), in which we briefly touched on the idea of symmetry between Jesus’ birth and death. I quoted Augustine, who noted the belief, current at the time, that Christ’s conception occurred on March 25.

For He is believed to have been conceived on the 25th of March, upon which day also He suffered; so the womb of the Virgin, in which He was conceived, where no one of mortals was begotten, corresponds to the new grave in which He was buried, wherein was never man laid, neither before nor since. But He was born, according to tradition, upon December the 25th. (Augustine, On the Trinity, Book IV, Chapter 5)

Over time, I’ve become convinced that we can gain more insight into the history of the legends applied to Jesus by examining the symmetry between the incarnation and death legends. Here are a few points to mull over. Continue reading “Symmetry in the Legends Surrounding Jesus’ Birth and Death”